Civil society and policy change [Archives:2009/1227/Viewpoint]

January 22 2009

Nadia Al-Saqqaf
The Network of Civil Society Organizations for Development is the first network of its kind in Yemen. It includes large and small civil society organizations from around the republic that all share a vision for a better Yemen. The network, which is funded by Oxfam and headed alternatively by a member organization, has already been involved in several activities on the policy level. These activities indicate the civil society's readiness, to a large extent, to participate in national policies.

The latest activity – which I believe is one of the most courageous and most advanced in the whole region – is reviewing the national budget and identifying loop holes and issues that need revision. The network considers itself closer to the people and in a better position to identify and report the priorities of the people. The network also questions issues such as gender responsive budgets, transparency, and good governance. This is a natural result of this network being a project supported by Oxfam's good governance program.

All sounds good until we realize how the result of the network's study was taken by both the officials and by some of the civil society organizations. The result exposed error in allocating budgets and vagueness in various budget lines such as unidentified expenditure, duplication of allowances, and so forth. When questions were raised, the whole financial circle of the state went mad and demanded an apology from the civil society network. “How dare you question the integrity of the government and its various financial and development instruments?” the state's officials demanded, especially those bodies whose budgets were questioned.

The civil society network ended up omitting sections from the report where they discovered conflicts, and issued a letter of apology to the concerned agencies.

What's even worse is that some of the civil society organizations within the network turned against the study and against each other. Their interests were at stake, and being associated with such a daring move would mean losing funding, positions, or some other kind of support. In fact, some of the member organizations have already been given regret letters, as funding for previously agreed projects was cancelled. The indirect message was “this is what you get for crossing the red line.”

The good news is that the network, or at least the network's executive management, was not deterred by the feedback they received. They just concluded another study on the national education strategy and budget. This will also be discussed and hopefully will receive more support and be embraced by the decision makers rather than rejected. The network will annually tackle various budget lines of the national sectors one at a time. Hopefully the repetition will enable them to be more confident and capable of handling the wrath they will surely receive.

This network of civil society organizations deserves all the support it can get. Yemen needs this right now, and needs such activities to continue, because if there is one thing Yemen currently lacks it would be accountability. The knowledge that someone is reviewing their work would hopefully make decision makers think twice before they do away with the few resources our country has.